A better mass transit system (that we already had…)

pt075741.jpgJasonT’s post longing for a good metro subway or rail system got me thinking about this subject again. I’ve looked into it a number of times over the years because it always seemed crazy that all of the streetcars that once ran throughout the Twin Cities just vanished one day. The streetcars were, in fact, directly responsible for a great deal of the growth of Minneapolis and St. Paul in the early 20th century. Ironically, the photo I put in this post (the thumbnail links to a larger version) is on the very same corner that our new light rail line terminates in downtown Minneapolis.

I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that the downfall of the streetcar system here was accompanied with some controvesy and corruption. There is even talk of General Motors and the mob conspiring to purchase and scrap the streetcars serving Minneapolis-St. Paul. The following contains a good deal of info that I’ve pulled from the Minnesota Historical Society and other sources along with some of my own opinions and observations.

When Minnesota’s first electric streetcars were introduced in 1888, hundreds of people lined up to try them. The electric streetcars delivered both passengers and mail quickly and efficiently. The streetcars were a symbol of the boom that the Twin Cities were experiencing at the end of the 19th century: wherever new tracks were built, new land was developed, and the cities expanded. The remarkable success of the electric streetcar in urban service led to its use in rural and intercity operation. The term “interurban” was first used in 1890 to designate the intercity streetcar line between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and came to be used nationwide to denote intercity operations in general. Streetcars were an elegant and non-polluting form of public transportation that brought the upper and lower classes of Minnesota together for almost seventy years, until they were finally displaced by the rise of the automobile in the 1950s.

The Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) operated the streetcar and local bus system in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro from the 1890s until 1970. For many years the TCRT corporate umbrella included four operating subsidiaries which functioned as a unified transportation system: Minneapolis Street Railway Company, the St. Paul City Railway Company, Minneapolis & St. Paul Suburban Railroad Company, and the Twin City Motor Bus Company. Other TCRT subsidiaries included the Minnetonka and White Bear Navigation Company which provided express boat service on Lake Minnetonka and others. The Minneapolis Street Railway Company (MSR) and the St. Paul City Railway Company (SPCR) began continuous service in the 1870s as horsecar carriers. In 1886 the two properties began to operate under a single group of owners when Minneapolis businessman Thomas Lowry and his associates gained control of both. Electrification of the horsecar lines began in Minneapolis in 1889 and in St. Paul in 1890.

A management change in 1949 brought New York financier Charles Green to the presidency of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company. Green and his associates decided to abandon the streetcar lines and convert to buses as quickly as possible, apparently in order to maximize their short-term profit. The company’s entire streetcar fleet was scrapped and replaced by buses in an aggressive conversion plan completed in 1954 under TCRT president Fred A. Ossanna, a former associate of Green’s who managed to oust him in 1951. Ossanna and four of his associates were convicted in 1960 of defrauding the TCRT of company assets, including scrap metal and real estate, during the conversion. Twin City Rapid Transit Company changed its name in 1962 to Minnesota Enterprises Incorporated, and in 1970 this firm became MEI Corporation. MEI left the transit business in 1970 with the takeover of its Twin City Lines subsidiary by the Twin Cities Area Metropolitan Transit Commission, an agency created by the Minnesota Legislature and charged with maintaining and improving public mass transit in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

I’ve been hearing of studies beginning that will examine reintroducing streetcars to Minneapolis, beginning in the Midtown Greenway connecting transit service on Hiawatha (existing) and 35W BRT and Southwest LRT (planned) and all the neighborhoods along Lake Street. (snipped from the “Mayor’s Priorities” on the City of Mpls website) I say the sooner the better.

1 Comment so far

  1. Dan (unregistered) on October 6th, 2005 @ 9:28 pm

    What an interesting post. So few people take the time to put together in-depth information on what they’re talking about.

    For example, I was almost sure that GM deep-sixed the streetcars, but now I learn that is unconfirmed.


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